15 March 1996
Yesterday morning my daughter sat beside me in the front of the car – her face beautiful, her chatter incessant in the manner of five- year-olds – as I drove her to school. On the back seat, face down, lay the newspapers with those pictures of other people’s beautiful children, all dead.
When we arrived at her North London primary school the teachers were quiet and the children subdued. Some had seen or heard the news, but most had not. Their parents – like me – were not up to such a task last thing before bedtime, or in the rush of the morning. It was left to the school to tell them.
I feared the day’s work at Parliament and the prospect of true feelings being lost under a grey barrage of mournful cliches about horror, shock and tragedy; the same ones that are trotted out for every atrocity, bombing or natural disaster. All too often, I believe, we use language as an anaesthetic – to disguise our pain.
And how would Parliament deal with its impotence in the face of the killings at Dunblane? It is a human trait to want always to solve problems – to believe that had X only done this, or Y realised that, then disaster could have been averted. For MPs, inhabiting a world of policies and solutions, the impulse to call for immediate action would be very strong.
But then something remarkable happened. As John Major rose for Prime Minister’s Question Time, an absolute silence descended. A real one, not the hypocritical quietness of those seeking to make a good impression. In answer to the inevitable question from Hartley Booth, MP for Finchley, the Prime Minister quietly and sadly said what he had to say. We could not expect to understand such an event, but we could feel for those grieving in a small Scots town.
Then Tony Blair, gripping the despatch box and clearly fighting for control of his feelings, asked how many parents, on hearing the news, must have clutched their small children that much more tightly to them. “Politics is silent”, he said. “We stand in solidarity with the people of Dunblane.” “The honourable gentlemen’s words will find an echo in the hearts of parents everywhere,” replied the Prime Minister.
I looked down from the press gallery not on MPs, but on dads and mums, aunties and grandfathers, many carrying with them feelings of guilt about having missed so much of their children’s early years. Some had heads bent – a couple were crying.
“I think we will hear the statement now,” said Betty Boothroyd, in a whisper. Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, stood up and in precise speech gave the facts and figures, announced the setting up of an inquiry and concluded simply, “the whole nation mourns”.
It was the turn of his shadow, George Robertson, who lives in Dunblane and whose own three children had gone to the school. It was not necessary, he said, to have lived locally to understand how people feel. His voice broke slightly. “You just have to be a fellow human being.” Nor was there comfort to be had. “I have to say that Dunblane today is worse than yesterday. There are real children gone, real families afflicted. We stand together with those whose loss today is beyond repair.”
Up stood Ian Paisley, a man who I have always disliked, quoting from a scripture I have never believed in. And in an instant was transformed. “Rachel weeps for her children, and will not be comforted, for they are not.” Then he went on to tell the parents of Dunblane how many in Northern Ireland shared their pain, for “deep calls unto deep”. And he was right. It does. It did.
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